Hacking the brain and switching off depression

I heard an incredible story on NPR today, during the TED hour, that has me reeling. I’m still thinking about it and am stirred deeply by it.

Lighting enlightenment

Switching on the brain

Treating movement and cognitive functioning with deep brain stimulation

The particular interview I’m talking about was with neurosurgeon Andres Lozano, and his teams deep brain stimulation with electrode implants. (You can see the video and the transcript by clicking here.) They were able to literally switch off (with a remote) tremors in Parkinson’s patients. They were also able to switch off depression for some sufferers.

 

Switch…it…off.

 

The logical outcome of this was that they switched on motivation.

 

Mischievous neurons

‘Telling a neuron, “Now that’s enough.'”

This part of the interview hit me so hard that I got misty. What an amazing experience it would be:

So the first thing we did was we compared, what’s different in the brain of someone with depression and someone who’s normal? And what we did was PET scans to look at the blood flow of the brain and what we noticed is that in patients with depression, compared to normals, areas of the brain are shut down. Those are the areas involved in motivation and drive and decision-making, and indeed, if you’re severely depressed, as these patients were, those are impaired. You lack motivation and drive. The other thing we discovered was an area that was overactive – area 25. And area 25 is the sadness center of the brain.

If I make any of you sad, for example, if I make you remember the last time you saw your parent before they died or a friend before they died, this area of the brain lights up. It is the sadness center of the brain. And so patients with depression have hyperactivity, the area of the brain for sadness is on red-hot. The thermostat is set at a hundred degrees. And the other areas of the brain involved in drive and motivation are shutdown.

So on the basis of those observations, we embarked on a study to implant electrodes in area 25 and turn on the electricity to see whether we could turn down the activity in this area to see whether this would have some benefit in people with so-called treatment resistant depression.

…So many of the patients will say that they have this black cloud over them or they have this tremendous weight – this pressure on their chest. And within – turning this on, within two or three seconds, that sensation disappears in about two-thirds of the patients.

…They say, this burden is lifting. I feel a tremendous relief. And then they start looking around, then they start becoming more engaged. These are people who often do not leave the house, who sit in a chair all day, and all of a sudden, they’ll say, I feel like doing some housekeeping. Or a man will say I feel like going into my garage and, you know, fixing the car. A tremendous sort of call to action to do things that they were not able to do for many weeks and months. And all of this occurs within 10 or 15 seconds of turning on the stimulator.

–Andres Lozano

Hacking depression

I can’t imagine this kind of turnaround…Or maybe I can.

The most amazing, persistent thought to me is that of the possibility. To know that it is a thing which can be targeted this way at all is very hopeful. Of course, we think in our minds and we say with our lips that depression can be treated with willpower and changing of habits. It’s hard of course, but it is true and has been effectively proven. But the sinister power of deep depression is its ability to exploit the fear within the sufferer that it is a thing which cannot be moved. It is you. It just is who you are, and you cannot escape it.

We’ll never to be able to make all our problems go away by flipping a switch. But this is an amazing reminder that depression and other mood disorders don’t just have to be the way it is; that they are, in fact, abnormal; and that they are, in fact, real. There is a power that comes with realizing something, and giving it a name.

Make a Fist: Nature’s Improvised Antidepressant

This is a grouper.

Grouper

Depression, staring you down, wondering if it can eat you

They get huge.

I visited the Bahamas with my family as a teenager. I remember the guide who took us snorkeling–Levi was his name–and how he told me that he used to feed fish at the aquarium. He fed these giant grouper which, he said, were so big that sometimes when he held out the food they would try to swallow his whole arm. I thought that was a little unnerving but he was, of course, completely nonchalant.

“How do you make them let go?” I asked him.

“You just make a fist in their mouth, and push. Then they back off.”

 

I sometimes get the feeling that my ego, depression, circumstances, whatevah, are slowly trying to swallow me like a big, ugly fish. Sometimes I don’t even need an equal or greater opposing force–all I have to do is make a fist, and push. Every time I do, it reminds me who is doing the feeding here and who is in charge.

 

Hate To-Do Lists?

How about a Being List? Who will you be this week? Might as well try it.

Got this from Chris Guillebeau (on Twitter @chrisguillebeau)

Got this from Chris Guillebeau (on Twitter @chrisguillebeau)

Here’s a modest example:

To-Be Today

      • A dad to my son
      • A caring husband
      • A servant leader, who leaves a place looking better than I found it, and leaving someone feeling better than I found them
      • Helpful
      • Someone who trusts God, and trusts in something much bigger than himself
      • Someone who reaches out to somebody else that is hard for me to connect with
      • Someone who will give something without concern over what I’ll get back
      • A trusting business partner, who follows the advice of those who have gone before me
      • Sincere
      • A remover of my own excuses
      • A person who prays for people I don’t understand instead of bemoaning them
      • A person who likes what he is becoming and is thankful for what he has

It’s not easy to make a list like this at first. I found myself reverting many times to a “do” and “don’t” list. There’s nothing wrong with a Do-list (and things still need to get done), but for me it is important to balance what I do and what I am. If I’m more aware of what I’m doing and what I want to do, I can be more aware of who and what I want to become, and vice versa.

No matter what I do, I’m going to be something. I will become what I have done up to that point. If I know what I want to be, it will guide me as to what I must do in order to get there. And it starts in this moment, which is the only one I actually have.

That is an encouraging thought. 😉

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Distortion 5: Jumping to Conclusions

[Continuing my series on some of David Burns cognitive distortions. It helps me to really see them for what they are and how I apply them to my thinking.]

 

 

...therefore, splat!

cello5 / Pixabay

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jumping to conclusions–it’s the Andrew Lloyd Weber of distortions in my opinion. Loud, dominating, powerful, and massively appealing. Two particularly sinister varieties: mind reading and fortune telling.

[Read more…]

Distortion 2: Overgeneralization

I’m beginning a series on some of David Burns cognitive distortions. It helps me to really see them for what they are and how I apply them to my thinking. Hopefully it will help someone else realize they are doing it too to their detriment.

◊ Overgeneralizing takes isolated cases or truths and makes wide, sweeping assertions about many more cases–or even all cases. Generalizing is another type of heuristic that helps us to grasp and categorize things. Inducing what will happen next based on what you’ve experienced is obviously an important skill. It’s generally safe to believe, for example, that since you nearly burned your eyebrows off the last time you left the gas on too long before you lit the grill, it will probably happen again if you wait just as long…and the same goes for any gas grill you dare to light.

◊ Obviously, this is a valuable cognitive skill. Even animals do it. But it takes a turn for the nasty when it is used to protect us from what we don’t know or understand. I’m talking about discrimination and prejudice that is irrational, bitterness, and pessimism. Combined with the fact that our brains are wired to hold onto negative events and losses more tightly than positive ones, this all becomes very natural. Murphy probably only had to drop his buttered toast a couple of times before he discovered “a law.”

◊ I have laughed until I nearly cried at things like despair.com. Their success is based on overgeneralization of stuff we’d rather not experience or witness. But I laugh like a sad clown–nobody in their right mind finds these really putting smiles of joy on their faces. The smiles demotivators invoke are smiles along the lines of “as long as it doesn’t happen to me..this time.”

I’ve learned that even though this distortion is easy to adopt in order to feel smarter and that I somehow won’t be duped by anyone, it makes me really annoying to people who catch onto me. It makes me a Debbie Downer, who focuses on what will probably go wrong. But worst of all, opportunities go flying by me because I see them coming for a fleeting moment and go, “Meh, wouldn’t work anyway.” Better to keep the cognitive skill as a way to be prepared and remember that each new opportunity is in fact new.

Distortion 1: All or Nothing

I’m beginning a series on some of David Burns cognitive distortions. It helps me to really see them for what they are and how I apply them to my thinking. Hopefully it will help someone else realize they are doing it too to their detriment.

◊ All-or-nothing (also called ‘splitting’) is that tendency to sort everything into absolute terms like “always,” “never,” “every time,” and an oldie but goodie “utterly,” etc. If you really try and think about it, very few aspects of human behavior are absolute. There is usually at least one time you did “that thing” differently. You grow in knowledge and ability so repeat your actions but not exactly the same way; or, you mess up 7 out of 10 times but those other 3 are magical.

Sad that Google Suggests only one thing to follow this question. And, yet again, teenagers are singled out as more stupid than other populations. Don’t buy into it! 

 ◊ I suppose it tends to follow a natural progression. Hindsight is 20×20, our brains develop and change, and these facts conspire to make us think we are over it.

◊ Why do we do this? Because it’s a heuristic that has worked before—a mental shortcut which makes it easier to move on. For example, if you are tired of a relationship with a friend that on certain occasions puts you down, you may be torn as to whether you should continue the relationship. Sometimes they make you feel good, and sometimes bad, so it’s not 100% miserable. You might even feel guilty getting rid of them for “sometimes bad” because you are disregarding the good. So you split it, all-or-nothing: “That guy is always putting me down.” Then you can sever the connection, because who’s going to fault you for someone who’s always bad to you?

To be fair, we have to take mental shortcuts to survive and to get through life. These shortcuts aren’t all bad of course, but they are easily misapplied and go unchecked. A rule of thumb easily slips into a prejudice, some kind of fear, enabling an escape from opportunity…

 

It wasn’t hard to realize and accept that I pull this distortion all the time…oops, I mean a lot. But once I was aware Ifound out how hard it is to stop—how pervasive it is, how rampant it is in my family. It enables my self-sabotaging “don’t bother trying” thoughts. How many times have I missed out on opportunities to do something new and add value to my world because of this language? I just discovered Joel Runyan the other day—people like that are fascinating to me because they blew the cap off of the realm of possibility long ago.